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Parting thoughts
George Weber
by Jean Milligan
George Weber, after seven years as secretary general, left the Federation at the end of 1999. Before he embarked on new challenges, he offered some final reflections on his tenure and the road ahead for the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
What do you consider as your most important contribution?
I would say helping to extend the work of the Movement and increase the number of beneficiaries we assist effectively and efficiently.

What have you not been able to achieve?
I would have liked to adjust the relief culture in our National Societies and at the Federation, and mobilized more unearmarked resources for general capacity building.

What was your most rewarding moment in the last seven years?
The attainment of permanent UN observer status was the most gratifying moment, especially given that the ICRC and some members of the Security Council were not so favourable at the time. To achieve this level of international recognition, most National Societies went to their foreign ministries to promote the initiative. With all these people acting on a shared commitment, it revealed the potential of what it means to work as a Federation. And if that kind of energy can be further harnessed and unleashed as a power of good, it is an unbeatable force.

As former CEO of the Canadian Red Cross you had to respond to the investigation into the distribution of hiv-infected blood. What was your response?
I was very involved in my work, and it was disturbing at times to have to deal with what was going on in Canada. I did go back to testify voluntarily to help set the record straight and provide some balance in the argumentation. It bothers me even today. We did the best job we could at the time. Some things could have been done differently, but with the information that was available we did what we thought was best and the record shows that.

How would you describe relations with the ICRC over the last seven years?
Generally speaking relations were good. It is true that as the Federation developed its capacity, some of our achievements caused strains in our relations. But I would like to emphasize that when a problem arose senior management on both sides met to discuss and find a solution. There will undoubtedly be difficult moments in the future, particularly when you start looking at the statutes of the Movement. In this area, I think there are some things that the Federation should be doing, which are currently in the domain of the ICRC. Overall, I think relations will remain good and cooperation at many levels will strengthen.

What do you see as the weaknesses and strengths of the Movement?
I think the name Movement is a weak point. I remember when it was agreed upon. Nobody really liked it, but it was impossible at the time to come up with something better that could be easily translated into four languages. The strengths are the symbols, the values, the principles, the Geneva Conventions, our history, our network, our volunteer base with the professional support. And the worldwide profile.

There was some criticism about Federation efforts to raise funds from the corporate and private sectors. What are the lessons learned from these experiences?
Global fund-raising is here to stay. The idea of being the recipient of the first global Internet lottery was revolutionary when we initially researched it. Today PlusLotto is earning the Federation nearly 9,000 Swiss francs a week. We are seeing results, but we have had some harsh lessons. One of the things we learned was that the Red Cross and Red Crescent wants returns on its investment in a year or two. It cannot sustain investing over three to five years before seeing a return. It is too conservative and financially unable to do so. And that was one of the issues with HelpAd. Also I think we overestimated the potential of these ventures and raised expectations. When the small levels of return fell short of original predictions, there was a fair amount of criticism. We learned somewhat late never to oversell.

With the Internet becoming more accessible, what, if any, impact do you see the electronic age having on humanitarian causes like the Red Cross Red Crescent?
The day is fast arriving when somebody in downtown Chicago goes on the Internet and donates directly to a local chapter in Bangladesh. Forget all the bureaucracy in between. This will have an enormous impact on our standards, the quality of programmes, profile, and relations with donors. This last element will place more stress on humanitarian institutions for greater transparency and accountability to a larger and more diverse group of donors.

What do you consider the Federation's priorities for the future?
Strategy 2010 clearly defines the larger priorities. Beyond that I think that helping migrants will also be an important issue for the Federation. As the gap between rich and poor grows, there will be more marginalized groups and vulnerable people that are going to need the Red Cross Red Crescent.
Overall, humanitarian action in terms of disaster response will remain our first priority. As last year made clear, natural phenomena are affecting more and more people and there are more devastating and frequent emergencies. These events require immediate response. On top of that, I see the Federation leading efforts to develop long-term strategic plans to mitigate the effects the next natural disaster can have on a village, city or region.

The Federation is about to begin an important campaign to highlight the role of volunteers. What place does the volunteer have in the Red Cross Red Crescent today?
They are vital. They are what the Movement is all about in terms of the spirit, principles and pioneering role of individuals. Most of the local branches worldwide are run by volunteers. But we need to do more for our volunteers.
First, they must be more involved in the decision-making and governance aspects both locally and nationally. Also they need to receive more recognition and support for their work as service providers. I believe that the future of the Red Cross and Red Crescent depends on our improving the treatment of the people who embody our philosophy and history.

Interview by Jean Milligan
Jean Milligan is Federation editor of Red Cross, 
Red Crescent magazine.
As of 1 January 2000, Didier J. Cherpitel became secretary general of the Federation. (See In brief section)

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